Finding community amid conflict

Originally posted: August 19, 2011

Q A with Summer Scholar Meg Gaertner ’12:

How are you approaching the topic?

I’m studying the identity politics of international conflicts and the role that grassroots, bottom-up peace-building—like community-building, reconciliation efforts, and especially sustained dialogues—have in building sustainable peace and preventing future identity conflicts. I compare such techniques with dominant international peace-building strategies—like pacification, militarization, negotiation/mediation—and evaluate which more effectively address the identity politics of conflicts. Finally, I apply this work to the Northern Ireland conflict as a case study.

Fareeda Griffith, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology, on her advisee:

In two of my courses, Meg displayed real diligence and critical perspective from a sociocultural perspective. She always works hard on assignments and projects, as well as offers thought provoking comments in class discussions. In addition, my research interests include examining racial and ethnic relations from a global perspective. Meg’s project offers a complicated discussion of ethnic relations in Northern Ireland and links the role of post conflict resolution with Sustained Dialogue.

Research Title: “Sustainable Peace: the Necessity of Grassroot Peace Building and the Resolution of Identity Conflict”

What’s the story behind the idea?

I recently returned from a semester abroad in Northern Ireland. The program focused on the conflict itself, the peace process, and current grassroots peace-building efforts. It also involved an internship at an organization working for sustainable peace—I interned at the Belfast City Council. My interest in dialogue and other community-building initiatives stems from my involvement in Sustained Dialogue and Denison Religious Understanding on campus, both working to build community and increase participants’ openness through dialogue.

I wrote the proposal for this project before going to Northern Ireland, but I figured I would want to work on issues related to the program. This was definitely a good judgment. I really became attached to Northern Ireland while there, and it frustrated me to see how “stuck” the region is—the conflicting parties caught in a “peaceful” (though uneasy) coexistence. Many citizens seemed either apathetic or content to experience an “acceptable level of violence” (occasional rioting, petrol bombs thrown, property damage, injuries, and deaths). Others were unwilling to risk the relatively stable status quo in order to achieve sustainable peace. I wanted to research what sustainable peace would entail, and ultimately to be able to make informed suggestions as to how Northern Ireland can move forward.

What’s the most interesting or unexpected thing you learned?

I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting, but I read some work on community-building that really challenges common understandings of what a community is or entails. Often people in our intensely individualistic society consider community (or at least words sounding like community, like “communism,” gasp!) to be inherently destructive of individual identity. But this author, Scott Peck, proposes that it is only in true community that we can fully and genuinely be ourselves, that rugged individualism essentially prevents us from being completely open with others and from demonstrating our full range of emotions (the “weak” ones along with the acceptable ones) and perspectives (the “wrong” ones along with the good). Only in community is difference and individualism truly cherished and celebrated. I found this fascinating.

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